“Didn’t anybody ever tell you that questions are a danger to you and a burden to others?” - Eugene Krabs to SpongeBob SquarePants
Warning: Major Spoilers Ahead
There’s been controversy surrounding the authenticity of the documentary film Catfish, from directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Frankly, I’m not certain that it matters whether all of the film is actual documentary footage or not. What matters is the human story that evolves around the filmmaker’s brother, Nev Shulman, and his interaction with a woman named Angela Wesselman.
The virtual friendship that develops between Nev and family members Abby, Megan, and Angela is, for lack of a better term, rather sweet. Eight-year-old Abby’s paintings are extraordinary and thoughtful. Megan’s text messages are flirtatious and eventually become those of a woman falling hard for a man she’s never met. Nev and Megan’s interactions on Facebook accentuate the nature of this warm and sensitive relationship. There’s no question that viewers, at this point, are identifying with Nev and hoping for the best.
Too bad it doesn’t work out that way.
Nev follows up on his mounting suspicions, and discovers that the entire scenario has been perpetrated by a middle-aged woman named Angela Wesselman. There is no Megan. Abby isn’t a painter. All of the Facebook friends in Megan’s life are constructs. At first, we wonder if Angela is some psycho stalker, or if this was an elaborate con. Instead, the story takes a most unusual turn.
Nev gently confronts Angela. What results is a moving human portrait of a woman who gave up all she had, buried her talents, and settled into a Northern Michigan home, caring for two severely disabled children and their odd, yet strangely insightful, father. We never quite understand why Angela made the decisions she did, but the results are clear. “I don’t know who I am anymore,” she says, with tears rolling down her cheeks. Her actions were driven, as far as we can tell, because she wanted to reach out and connect with someone. Nev’s photographs spoke to her, so she did. Alas, her own self-esteem was so crippled that she couldn’t bear to do it as herself.
Nev’s reaction is telling. He isn’t angry, although his disappointment is palpable. Being a generous, warm-hearted individual, he remains friends with Angela. Her pathos is so overwhelming that we are glad he makes that choice. For a film that is about reaching out and making a connection, it succeeds.
The film is well-paced, giving the audience plenty of time to feel for Nev and his growing relationship, then teasing out the mystery. It is an enjoyable and moving experience.
But no discussion of the film is complete without addressing the film’s subtext, namely, “how do we know what is real?” This question is more relevant now than ever before, given technology’s ability to cloak our true identities and create entire worlds from scratch on computer. Google has transformed our standard for what is legitimate and what isn’t. Yet , because anyone can create an infinite number of virtual personalities, businesses, relatives, and experiences, even Google results are ultimately meaningless.
What is real? The film’s power lies in that question. As I’ve written many times, most of the time we just don’t know what is real, and probably never will. The film teaches us to be wary of where we get our “facts” from. Google is ultimately meaningless. We each must seek out our own truths, and rely only on those things we can verify as truth. In Nev’s case, he permitted himself to be manipulated until he insisted on finding out the truth. We all should be so wise.
We can by becoming our own incarnation of the great journalist-turned-filmmaker, Sam Fuller. He said, and I paraphrase, “Why should I believe what Joe said? Do I know Joe? If I don’t, and I didn’t see something happen with my own eyes, then why should I believe him?”
And yet, is there not a paradox in saying we should seek out the truth, but then say it doesn’t matter when it comes to Catfish? Shouldn’t we pound on the filmmakers until they tell us? Nope. You won’t get an answer, and even if you do, you still can’t be certain. Joaquin Phoenix has proven that. That’s why Andy Kaufman was so brilliant. He challenged us on a regular basis.
In the end, you must trust your gut. That’s where the truth lies. And if you can’t find the truth, you may as well enjoy the ride. 20 Dates is hilarious, but I still don’t know if it’s real.
In addition, it is films like these that self-reflexively exemplify the meaning of Catfish‘s title. Angela’s husband tells a story of how catfish were added to shipments of live cod, in order to keep the cod alert and their bodies fit. Without them, their flesh turned to mush. Catfish are there in real life, too, to help keep people on their toes.
We need more catfish and Hoax Cinema, as I call hit, provides just that.